When Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly announced Monday that he would be withdrawing the lion’s share of his airplanes and helicopters in Syria, it came as a surprise for many international political pundits who had pegged the Russian president as the key aggressor in the five-year conflict.
The vicious civil war — that began as a peaceful protest against the country’s once-promising-reformist-turned-brutal-dictator Bashir al-Assad to become one of the goriest armed conflicts in recent history and a global humanitarian crisis (leading to more than 250,000 dead and at least 11 million displaced refugees) — seemed to have ascended into a dismal cycle of bloodshed, political posturing and irreconcilable impasses.
Multinational peace talks brokered by the United Nations seemed to be going nowhere, falling apart even before they began, dimming any chance of a diplomatic solution.
Despite a shaky month-old cease-fire agreement that has so far quashed some of the violence (albeit not all of it), the latest rounds of on-again-off-again international peace talks held out little promise for an end to the perpetual stalemate.
But Monday’s announcement of Moscow’s partial military contingence drawdown (carefully timed to coincide with the long-awaited return to the negotiating tables in Geneva that same day) might just be the flicker of hope that could reignite an illuminated roadmap for peace in Syria.
Before Russia began its airstrikes in Syria last September, Assad’s regime was on the verge of collapse, but Moscow’s intervention and its attacks on rebel forces cleared the way for the Syrian strongman to regain key territories and reassert his dominance as president.
In other words, with Russia on his side, Assad had the upper hand.
Now, without the military backing of Russia, Assad has little choice but to at least hear out what the West has to say (since he won’t have Moscow to defend him in his bullying tactics against his own people).
After five and a half months of Russian air raids against his enemies, Assad is now going to have to fend for himself, and that means he is more likely to accept compromise.
So what exactly was Russia’s plan for its military intervention in the conflict?
Russian Ambassador to Mexico Eduard Rubénovich Malayán insists that his country never intended to engage in an open-ended presence in Syria.
“We never contemplated a long-term involvement in the region,” he told The News in an interview Tuesday.
“Our objective was to stabilize the situation and to help Assad develop his own military to fight off Islamic State (IS) terrorists. Those objectives have, for the most part, been fulfilled, so our main mission has been accomplished.”
Still, Russia has made it clear that while it is cutting back on the number of aircraft it will have in Syria, Moscow will maintain its airbase and a naval facility there.
Malayán also said that the United States and Europe now understand that they must accept Assad as a legitimate leader of Syria.
He said that the West’s delusional idea that they could remove Assad through their support of opposition rebel forces was “wishful thinking,” and finally, after five years, the United States and Europe have realized that it is up to the Syrians to determine their own political fate.
“Our main goal was to help Assad to stabilize the situation so that the Syrian people could decide their own fate,” he said.
“There can be no real peace in Syria unless other countries stop trying to impose their will on the Syrian people.”
Creating an environment in which there is no foreign intervention in Syria is a tall order, and even if the official international community were to pull out completely, there would still be foreign-funded extremist groups operating in the region, reeking social chaos and making it difficult to create a viable and functioning state.
There are no assurances that this round of peace talks on Syria are going to produce any better results than the previous ones, but if they do, one thing is certain: Their success will be greatly credited to the astute maneuvering and strategic finesse of Vladimir Putin.
Thérèse Margolis can be contacted at [email protected].